by Emily Monaco
When I was 12, my parents took our entire family on a whirlwind trip through Italy. It was the time of, amongst other things, my first glass of Champagne at a restaurant in Florence, the first foreign money gracing my palm as I purchased gelato in the streets of Siena, and the first time I was struck with the strange but not altogether unpleasant realization that, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Her name was Laura, and she was Italian through and through. A university professor by trade and a personal tour guide, Laura met us on our very first day in Rome, and, completely jet-lagged, we set off following her on a walking tour of the city. I was in awe of the sheer number of things she knew; the history of the Romans and the Etruscans, where you could find the artist’s self-portrait on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the age of archways due to their details. I completely forgot how tired I was and spent the next few hours hovering at her elbow, listening to her answer my inquisitive eight-year-old brother’s endless questions.
Until lunchtime, that is. I wouldn’t be able to find the restaurant she showed us on a map, nor do I think I would ever stumble across it if I were let loose in Rome. My sense of direction is infamously poor (I generally think really hard about which way I should go, logically, and then make a 180 degree turn and walk that way. It sometimes works.), but that’s not why either. There was just something so perfectly hidden about this restaurant, the fact that we just stumbled upon it, though I’m sure Laura knew where we were going. One moment, we were exploring a beautiful, stonewalled pedestrian street, and the next we were sitting on a terrace, while smells of garlic wafted out of the kitchen.
I’m sure I ordered pesto or Bolognese, and I’m sure it was fabulous, as pretty much everything we ate in Italy was. But my father ordered bucatini all’Amatriciana, and I had my first brush with this savory sauce when he offered me a taste. At 12, I couldn’t distinguish the flavors of caramelized onions and pancetta, of just the smallest amount of tomato playing off the other characters. All I knew was that it was delicious, and for the rest of my trip, I vowed to order it everywhere. Imagine my surprise, then, when it wasn’t as available in other cities where it’s not a local specialty. It’s just as well, I suppose: now I have that perfect food memory, watching Laura deftly twirl spaghetti into perfect bites as we looked out over the piazza and soaked up Rome.
Note: The sauce is traditionally made with bucatini. If you can find this thick spaghetti with a hole through it, use it!
200 g. guanciale or pancetta
2 onions, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic
1 large can (800 g.) whole peeled tomatoes, strained
400 g. uncooked spaghetti
grated pecorino romano, for serving
Cut guanciale or pancetta into small dice. Place in a cold skillet with a few tablespoons of water, and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the meat becomes crispy and slightly browned.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the onions. Remove the guanciale from the pan with a slotted spoon and add the onions. You may need to add a bit more oil, if the guanciale or pancetta has not rendered much fat. Slowly caramelize over low heat, adding water by the quarter cupful as necessary in order to lift up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. This can take about an hour; to speed up the process, you can add a tablespoon of sugar to help the onions caramelize faster.
When the onions are browned and have reduced by 1/4, mince the garlic and add it to the pan. Cook 2-3 minutes, until fragrant, then add the tomatoes, reserving the juice in the can for another use. Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and increase the heat to medium. Bring the sauce to a low simmer.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti or bucatini according to package directions. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta. Reserve half of the sauce in a separate dish, and add the pasta to the sauce remaining in the pan. Toss together, adding small amounts pasta water to thin the sauce if necessary. Place the pasta in a serving dish and top with the reserved sauce. Serve with Pecorino Romano cheese.
Emily Monaco is native New Yorker, living and writing in Paris since 2007. She loves discovering new places and, of course, their local cuisines! Read about her adventures in food and travel at tomatokumato.com or follow her on Twitter at @emiglia